SUBJECTING THE RAJAPAKSE REGIME TO THE LITMUS TEST
" The Sarath Fonseka saga is a major worry for the regime. He is as guilty as DIG Kotakadeniya who too was conspiring to enter politics while he was in uniform. Sarath Fonseka is in jail and Kotakadeniya is, not illegally, engaged in political work which is his right. Fonseka has entered the physche of the Sinhala people as a Hero and killing him - legally or extra-legally - will prove counter-productive."
by Luxman Arvind
(August 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In most developing countries where the democratic rule is in practice, the gulf between promises during elections and actual performance after a few years of those entrusted governance coming to power - on the basis of those assurances - usually shows ugly and gaping holes. But there is very little the electors can do – except, like ours, go out for an hour or opposite the Fort Railway Station or de Soysa Circus (Eye Hospital Junction) in the hot sun and shout themselves hoarse – displaying placards, setting fire to effigies and all. This provides the necessary entertainment for the rulers who watch this on TV and laugh. The comedy helps their blood-circulation and clogged arteries – result of regular and heavy intake of rich cholestoral-forming food, wines, dessert and what not. Their days of managing with a few aapas and katta-sambol and sleeping in wooden bankus is now behind them now ensconsed in government mansions – paid for by you and me. Nobodies have become Somebodies – individually and in groups of relatives. Those caught between, who do not enjoy this show, are the Police who generally mutter within themselves “onna thava pissu keliyak” Perhaps Wilson Gunaratna said it best in his “Charitha Hathak” when the victorious and ebriated hordes carry JRJ shoulder high to the stage. When they try to climb the stage the imaginary JRJ halts them “Dhang athi. Methenin mama mage viyaparaya genniyanang” sort of. Meaning “OK. You’ve done your part to bring me to power. This is as far as you go. From now on I run the show. Thank you” But, is that what democracy all about? The Lankan elector – politically conscious than many in other societies in the region - cannot be taken for granted any longer. They demand performance; they cry for honouring commitments made in the Manifesto and election platforms. In a country claiming literacy over 95% the new generation can read and understand its rights. The electronic media educates them of what other societies in other countries are securing through the democratic process. The people cannot be taken for granted any longer.
Starting from Madam B’s Election Pledge of “rice from the moon” (1970) JRJ’s half-redeemed pledge of “Eta-atak” (1977) Chandrika’s (1994) Bread at Rs.3/50 – all were episodes engineered to defraud voters. It must be said the UNP Governements of JRP and Premadasa (1977-1993)did liven up the economy. They increased the Per Capita substantially. A country characterized (1970-77)by empty shelves, food shortages, chronic deficiency of foreign exchange had cause for much smiling in this period. Yet in those years many of the burning questions of the day not only remain untouched but multiplied in the interim.
And now we have Mahinda Rajapakse – who, to his eternal credit, defeated and LTTE and finished Prabakaran - not only to the delight of the Sinhala nation but to the relief of the Tamils too – whom he (VP) latterly held hostage and captive. Many who tried to escape his fascism were point blank shot to death. Whether the credit for the war victory should go to Mahinda, Gothabaya or Sarath Fonseka individually or to all three of them collectively, is another matter. The reality is with Mahinda Rajapakse as C-in-C won a war against the dreaded LTTE – that Mrs.B, JRJ, Premadasa, CBK and Ranil could not accomplish. The Sinhala people who lived in fear regained their confidence. Arguments as if the fire-power and armed forces used were excessive, if collateral damage to civilian lives and their properties were in the overkill mode, whether widespread HR and War Crimes were committed are subjects that should fall under the realm of another study. For the purpose of this article, Mahinda Rajapakse redeemed his main pledge to the Sinhala people. In so far as that is concerned, his place in the contemporary history of the country is assured.
But is that all what the people voted him for? The people in this case are the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and other people in the country - with different agendas. In his Election pledges he promised to reduce the Cost of Living, create sufficient employment opportunities to the growing school-leavers, GCE-educated and, more importantly, to the large number of unemployed graduates – the latter category forming the vanguard of his election victory in the SLFP, JVP, JHU, CP, LSSP, MEP. And above all he promised to settle the National Question. Promises were made to the wage-earning voters in the government service, State services, pensioners, state banks and sections of the private sector their salaries will see a substantial increase to meet the spiralling cost of living. Rajapakse - like Bill Clinton - virtually said "I feel your pain" The house-wife was not forgotten. She was given promises her daily essentials will be made plentifully available, in good quality, within easy reach and, more importantly, at affordable prices. The armed services that brought victory were assured salary increases, houses, good schools for their children, duty-free concessions in new vehicles etc., Assurances for cheaper and uninterrupted power all over the country, better health facilities, relief to parents in matters of the school-going child; easier, better and cheaper public transport were all parts of the promises. Naturally, an overwhelming number of people in the South - both in the Presidential and General Elections - fell for the promises. The North-East of the country sent a different message in both elections since their needs were almost entirely different.
The war was won over 15 months ago – and duly celebrated all over the country. Now the demand for the fulfillment of the other promises are taking various shapes. Disturbing stories of the regime instructing prison authorities to be ready with larger accommodation; keeping the armed forces at the same strength as during the years of the height of the war (at unbearable cost to the national exchequer); organizing eye-catching boru shows like Wimal Weerawansa’s tasteless nadagam in front of the UN office; Mervin Silva’s weekly episodes of his crude buffoonery are all aimed, most of the people suspect, at keeping their focus away from real issues. But these cannot be put away indefinitely or forgotten. They are now coming out to the fore. Ordinary citizens protesting in the streets are - at least some of them - abducted, assaulted or missing; Media persons are “escaping” by the score abroad while their colleagues who stay are either threatened, beaten or abducted with the state showing little responsibility as to their fate. The once highly respected School Principal has lost his reputation in the community; the Police Station – that was once haven for the protection of the citizen is now a dreaded place where complainants go only when necessary – and that too, with several people accompanying them. Many who went to Police Stations on legitimate business have not returned or those who have, come back in coffins. The Police uniform has lost its respect as was seen when two senior Police officials were watching - statue-like - when that goon Mervyn Silva, in Taliban style, was tying that frightened Samurdi officer to a tree. The government cannot be run or the people’s anger cannot be contained by private army of thugs lead by the Mervins, Dumindas or Thilangas. The lessons of Sothi Upali, Beddagana Sanjeewa, Prince Collom – dregs of the underworld were to bite the bullet in their gory deaths, is a lesson Sri Lanka is far different from Somalia and the Taliban. Private armies may serve a temporary purpose but they will eventually perish with their patrons.
The poor handling of external affairs has lost the GSP plus and hundreds of thousands of garment workers have been thrown out of employment. Investors in the FTZ who were beginning to have some form of confidence built over the years have closed shop and gone back. With that, prospects of additional investments they were planning have all gone. Sri Lanka known as one of the friendliest countries in the world is now distanced in many forums of the world. The UN has made it known in different ways the President was not welcome in the recent Summit of the leaders in New York – although, the Government, as to be expected, twisted it to say he was not going because he was upset over the proposed UN Panel. India is playing ducks and drakes asking the visit of the 3-man VIP delegation from Colombo to be postponed. Sri Lanka hits back and will be sending only Basil with the excuse Gothabaya and Lailth Weeratunga “are busy” India is delaying the sending of the
“Special Emissary” said to be agreed between the 2 governments for some months now. But why do we need a VIP official from there at all? The purpose is to “ensure re-settlement “ and other matters in Sri Lanka are going according to plan. For heaven’s sake, isn’t that our business entirely? In a small country India demanding to set up 2 Consulate offices – Jaffna and Hambantota is outrageous. Where is the sanctity to our national soverignity?China denying our labour and bringing in the reported 20,000 odd workers is another blot in the "management" of external matters. Worse is the fact that there are fears in a future Indo-China armed conflict Sri Lanka may be the Belgium of South Asia. The next global scale conflict/s can well be nuclear. The Kalpakkam (Chennai) and Kudankulam (Tirunelveli) nuclear plants are all within an hour from Sri Lanka is a frightful thought considering the Chernoby leak in Russia affected 10,000 kilo metres from site. In virtual admission of the collapse of our Foreign Affairs management, a government apologist Dayan Jayatilake notes “ after a dismal five years between Kadirgamar and GL Peiris” (Transcurrents 22/8/10) meaning Rohitha Bogollogama was an utter waste in all his years as Foreign Minister. So what was the President and the Cabinet doing when Bogollogama was messing things up – at such tremendous expenditure to the country. At that time he was only the other part of our Two Ronnies – the other being Mervin. Bogollama ran the country dry with his jaunts – taking almost his entire house-hold along – 1st class airfare, 5-star hotels no less.
Still, in fairness to the regime one must concede the economy has not entirely collapsed although Stock market interests are having sleepless nights for months. Last week’s IMF report stating Sri Lanka has managed to contain the deficit to 8% is encouraging. But this was achieved at much unexpected pain to the masses. And to further contain it to 7% for 2011 will mean stinging burdens to a people who had assurances their lot will steadily improve. Rice prices in the market that shot up to nearly Rs.100/kg coming down to half that price is good. But the price of chicken, beef, vegetables are outside the reach of the ordinary consumer and a tremendous source of worry. Champika Ranawake does not know what he is talking about when he seems to be satisfied buying wind power at Rs.25/unit is something admirable. This will result in half the consumers being unable to pay for their CEB Bills – is something the government must take note of.
The government’s bigger problem is one of the lack of managerial skill. One can have a Cabinet of 100 but what matters is how they manage the economy, political stability and governance to the people. We witnessed that drama when Maitripala Sirisena took over from Nimal Siripala to blame all the evils of the health ministry on the previous holder – no less a Cabinet colleague sending to the winds that much hallowed "Cabinet responsibility" Bandula Gunawardena, Susil Premachandra are all blaming each other for the "messes they have inherited" The hard truth is politicians of the caliber we have fall short of what is needed. This is why the government has been advised by IMF/WB to change their management capacity. Already BoI and Tourist Board have established men from the private sector running them. The government is advised by donors to tap other leaders from the commercial world to run loss-making State utilities.
The biggest non-performance of the Rajapakse regime is the failure to bring back the Tamils of the North and East to the Lankan family fold. While a few cosmetic solutions have been attempted to catch their eye, the Tamils continue to remain emotionally “a different people in a different land” They are surrounded by an excessively high garrison atmosphere while in the very words of the government “the war was conclusively won long ago” The Defence Secretary, knowing fully well his testimony to the Lessons Learnt and Truth Commission is being watched and heard in many parts of the world - confirmed– more for overseas, UN and donor consumption – the SLA will be reduced to pre-war levels and replaced by the multi-racial Police. He supported this by stating over 500 Tamil personnel are being trained at the Kalutara Police Training School to be deployed in the North East. This is welcome news and in the right direction if peace and reconciliatiojn is in the immediate agenda. His confirmation HSZ properties seized in Gurunagar have been released has not been confirmed by the owners there yet. But some Tamils in their areas returning to their homes complain their properties are taken over and converted to tourist and other ventures. They are asked to go to waterless, dry and unhabitable land, they complain. But no one seems to listen. Tamils in the North now live in the new fear the “armed Sinhala forces” are now being replaced by a civilian invasion from the South – encouraged by the State – to render them minorities in their own areas. The charges may be exaggerated. The government must move to refute these allegation, if they are inaccurate - soon and publicly. The sanitization of KP – both for Tamils and Sinhalese – appears to be a good thing and the regime has done well in trying to bring him to mainstream civilian life. After all, militants – whether Sinhalese or Tamil – respond against the conditions around them. If you remove the conditions that drove them into militancy you remove militancy itself.
The Sarath Fonseka saga is a major worry for the regime. He is as guilty as DIG Kotakadeniya who too was conspiring to enter politics while he was in uniform. Sarath Fonseka is in jail and Kotakadeniya is, not illegally, engaged in political work which is his right. Fonseka has entered the physche of the Sinhala people as a Hero and killing him - legally or extra-legally - will prove counter-productive. Some appear to think - giving his various ailments - keeping him in incarcertaion for a few more months will take care of the matter via the natural course. Others think a stiff sentence for many years in jail is the answer - but the Court Martial process is ultra vires the Constitution. The entire country - including the Mahanayakas - demand that his life be spared. It will require the combined skill of the trio that exclusively runs the government in the name of the Cabinet and Parliament to come out with a face-saving solution.
Sri Lanka is far from being entirely lost. It still can be saved to regain its recent glory. If managed well a united Sri Lanka can accomplish an annual Per Capita of US$4,000 by 2013, $8000 by 2018 and more later. What is required is corruption-free, able and inclusive truly representative government that responds to the urgent needs of all its constituents - effectively, speedily and transparently.